My Dinner with the Biographer

Last week in Lisbon I had the opportunity (thanks to Herminia Sol) to have dinner with Christopher Sawyer-Lacanno, the author of The Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles. I have been reading Bowles for nearly 20 years, and I have been writing on him since my undergraduate days at Binghamton. Sawyer-Lacanno’s book is really the first major biography on Bowles, and the one that is still considered the standard. Sawyer-Lacanno knew Bowles in the eighties and the early nineties and spoke much about that time at the conference and to me over dinner.

For those who know me, it’s no secret that Paul Bowles is one of my favorite authors, and that his 1949 book, The Sheltering Sky is my favorite novel. I’ve read that novel at least ten times and I feel that its story is as much a part of my life as my childhood memories. Briefly, the novel follows three Americans (a man, his wife, and their friend) who descend into the Algerian Sahara just after the Second World War and then goes on to describe what happens to each of them. The Sahara is just as much a character in the novel as the three human beings. Although I never got to meet Bowles, I have attempted to read everything that has been written about him, both critically and those pieces that are geared toward a more general audience.

So, when Herminia contacted me asking if I would like to accompany her to dinner, I jumped at the chance. I am always a bit nervous when meeting people I admire. I hate being to in the position where I state the obvious: “I loved your book.” Nevertheless, this was an opportunity I could not pass up. I met them at a very traditional restaurant in the center of Lisbon at 8:30. We exchanged hellos, and we talked about Lisbon. Over a dinner of fava beans, salt cod, sautéed pork, and octopus, we spent most of the evening discussing Lisbon, teaching and the politics of life in the university, as well as Istanbul, where Sawyer-Lacanno had just accepted a year-long teaching position. I kept looking for that “in” where I could broach the topic of Bowles, but it didn’t appear. Finally, as we were thinking about dessert, he brought up Bowles and asked how I became interested in him. From that moment on we spend the next hour or so talking about Bowles.

Sawyer-Lacanno did most of the talking, and it was a pleasure to sit and listen to him. I didn’t take notes, but tried to place all of the important information in that part of my brain where I could later call it back and write it down. The fact is I became so wrapped up in his stories that I missed a lot when I went to write up my notes later that night in the hotel.

A bit of history. Although Bowles did not refuse Sawyer-Lacanno’s request to write a biography on him, he did state that he hoped a biography would not be published in his life-time. Over the next few years Sawyer-Lacanno recounts that Bowles was very generous with his time and gave him complete access to his apartment and could use whatever he found. When the biography was finally published, Bowles was irate. He claimed that Sawyer-Lacanno deliberately distorted and misrepresented large aspects of his life. Most notably, Sawyer-Lacanno wrote candidly about Bowles’s sexual liaisons with young Moroccan men. It was no secret that Bowles was more interested in men than women, and Sawyer-Lacanno did write about this. However, to be fair, he hardly exposed or “outed” Bowles. Things got so bad that Bowles published a letter in the Boston Globe denouncing the biography and Sawyer-Lacanno, going so far as to call him a “wicked man” in his book on Tangier. During the last two decades of Bowles’s life (he died in 1999 at the age of 88) he was surrounded by a small group of “friends” that were fiercely protective of him. These friends barred Sawyer-Lacanno from Bowles—at least that is how I read it. (I have spoken with one person who was part of this inner circle, but that’s another story for another time.)

I asked Sawyer-Lacanno about the difficulties of writing about a subject one admires, only to have that subject reject him in the end. Sawyer-Lacanno was quite frank, and said that the controversy actually helped the sales of the book. It went to #13 or 14 on the New York Times bestseller list. The next day, at Sawyer-Lacanno’s talk, this subject came up again and everyone acknowledged that he (the biographer) was admirably graceful in taking it all in stride. In fact, Sawyer-Lacanno said, “Bowles was Bowles, what can you do?”

I learned quite a lot and feel privileged to have had the opportunity to discuss one of my favorite authors, an author who has had an immense influence on my life, with his biographer. Sawyer-Lacanno and I spoke regularly throughout the conference and had lunch and dinner over the following days. Together with his lovely wife, Patricia, I felt as if I made two new friends rather than interviewed the biographer of an author I am writing a book on.

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